Bad Teacher: Cameron Diaz as Monster Lite

Bad Teacher is not going to save anybody’s life.  Cameron Diaz as our very bad teacher is mostly a tiny monster. She tells kids they suck, she steals from the school car wash, and she strangely comes up with the idea to rub poison ivy on another teacher’s apple.  And this is extreme stuff for us American audiences. For all the gross-out humor of Bridesmaids, we still don’t like to see our lady protagonists getting ethically nasty.  I think of what the Brit version of Bad Teacher would be and get simultaneously high, and a case of the hives.  It would be rough. A funny, wickeder version of Notes on a Scandal.

At it’s best, Bad Teacher is a takedown of the Teach for America squeak and bounce, with a healthy knock to the mishmash of generic hoopla we expect of the “nurturing” professions.   At one point, Diaz’s Craigslist roommate comes home to find her eating a corn dog. “I thought you were going out with all the other nurses,” he says. “I’m not a nurse,” she says. “I thought you were a nurse.” More of this, please.

The trope of Diaz not nurturing her students ultimately becomes stale. She beats them, she smokes up in the school parking lot, and that was fun, but I was hoping for darker.  I was hoping this would lean more towards Bad Santa, if we were going to be badding up at all.  This might also be because I have been stuffing my eyeballs with Nighty Night lately, which has perhaps fucked up my expectation of what bad truly is. This is also the first movie I have seen with an extended dryhumping scene.

Two key markers are becoming standby shorthand for a lady movie where the ladies are “real people.” The first is that she has to eat something with a high caloric content without glamour or lust. She has to eat in the way that people do when they are alone.  Think Annie and her cupcake in Bridesmaids. In Bad Teacher, Diaz and her cheeseburger get some strange scene time as she drives to seduce a school district wonk.  Is it narratively important that she eats a cheeseburger on her mild drive? No. Is it funny to watch a fit Diaz eat a cheeseburger? If you think eating cheeseburgers are funny.  It was a strange way to spend 4 seconds, but it was so memorable. The earlier mentioned corn dog had a similar effect. I can’t tell if it’s because we’re unused to seeing women blandly eat without it being a large statement (she’s healthy cuz she eats! Cute because she doesn’t hide her appetite!) or so typical (woman laughing alone with salad). Women are either supposed to have orgasms when they eat cupcakes, or cry in the bathroom about it. Here, they just eat, and, you know, drive.

No orgasms, either. The other marker is the very bad sex scene, usually one that is good for the guy and atrocious for the gal.  Again, anything with Annie and John Hamm in Bridesmaids, and Justin Timberlake’s dedicated dryhumpery here.  The joke usually lands on the stupid, offensive, completely selfish things the men say during sex, while the women are slightly winking at the audience as they contort and romp. They’re with us, telepathing “this guy is a real piece of work,” as they wait for him to finally come. Both scenes are used to announce that the dude is not part of the happy ending for our protagonists.  Neither woman tells off the dude or quits the very bad sex even though he is not listening to her, or worse, tells her to stop talking. The good news is the audience aligns with the woman’s experience in the exchange, even if it assumes that putting up with mid-coitus bullshit is normsville. By making fun of the man’s blindness to his partner, we all actually see and listen to the lady character’s experience.

As a tangent, can you imagine this same dynamic for a great sex scene? In both these movies, the good sex is skipped over, either as a fade out or as an untold part of the story. This might be more because bad sex is easy to define, while good sex is ridiculously specific, especially for women, and thus harder to write.  In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where the bad sex was all very funny and very much from a male POV (the woman who kept saying ‘Hi,’ etc.) but the good sex was downright cliche’ (looking into each other’s eyes, meaning). 

The idea of seeing a good sex scene between Diaz and Jason Segel, her other love interest, is a little bit iffy. How do you keep us aligned in the woman’s experience without making it an over the top ode to a woman’s pleasure? And bad sex keeps the story focused on the protagonist, whereas good sex realigns the audience with the couple. And, the nitty gritty of bad sex is funny. The grit of good sex, is just, well, blushy. We already assume women are blushy.  In these movies where the lady protagonists are trying to claim all three dimensions they have to disregard and work against the already well-mapped soft spots of traditional femininity.  Thus, the dryhumping.

As for Bad Teacher, it’s a mildly good excuse to sit in the dark. One thing it does well is skew dialogue into natural conversation. Characters often say the obvious thing, but in a real and unpackaged way. When Diaz gives helpful dating advice that leads to two men hitting on her sidekick (Phyllis from the Office), Segal says “Wow, that worked superfast.” It could be flat, but it twists enough that when he says it, it lands as a real sentence in the world.  Also, Segel and Diaz seem to have a real chemistry, and while the plot gets stupid, and there are lots of loose ends, it doesn’t become a carnival like Spring Breakdown. I think that means we might be getting somewhere.

Yours,

CF

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Feminist Frequency at WAM! LA, and the Trait Spread

Dear Millicent,

Just got home from WAM! LA, which continues tomorrow, and broadly covers one of our favorite conversations: women and media. Anita Sarkeesian was the first speaker that I caught, and her presentation kind of bestilled my Millicent and Carla Fran heart. She said the phrase ” to see women as full and complete human beings” as much as we have typed “three-dimensional character” here. We have a shared quest: seeking the real woman on the screen.

Sarkeesian, who you might know from her Feminist Frequency videos (also now featured over at Bitch), presented an analysis of typically feminine and masculine traits as valued on TV.  We know these well (men are strong, women are intuitive, etc.), and she made an interesting point that onscreen, in the few instances where men have negative traits, they are usually an overabundance of of their positive traits. The example Sarkeesian used was a man with too much confidence becomes arrogant, etc. Meanwhile, with women, there were very few positive traits (ability to connect with others, focus on relationships, nurturing) while the motherload were negative (weak, passive, messy, out of control, materialistic).

And in an interesting extension of the conversation, she showed her ideal characters, men and women who have a balanced spread of negative and positive traits. In her definition of what a feminist character is, Sarkessian said “I want to to see her struggle with balancing these values…especially since the world is hostile to these values.”  An example was to see a character working cooperatively, and the difficulty of doing so since our society values independence.

The first example that jumped to mind was again Louie CK. His show is all about how he attempts to have both negative and positive traits in a world that does not reward a man for doing so (the scene where he refuses to get in a fistfight and is told that this choice made him instantly unattractive is a prime example of this). Sarkeesian’s theory explains some of what makes his work so compelling. Like I said before, both CK and the Munro are excellent at showing the struggle of being “a full and complete human being” in a world that only values specific traits for each gender. And I think what we love about literary protagonists like Harriet Vane is that they show the lack of give the world has for these other values.  It’s validating to see the complexity exist for somebody else, and very helpful to see that the confusion exists in another consciousness besides the one we are trapped in.

It would be grand if we convince Sarkeesian to stop by MCF for a chat…I’d love for us to talk Brit TV, quibble a bit about True Grit , and look at how comedy might rearrange the spread of traits (am hoping to get a copy of her charts to link to soon).

Yours,

CF

 

 

A Female Moment?

Dear Millicent,

The world is falling apart. But, I have some frivolous and cheering news. I think we might be in for a bit of a female moment, coming soon, to movie theaters near us.

I say this because, yesterday, I went to go see the new Simon Pegg Nick Frost genre bender, Paul. It was fine. Fine-ish. I will forget it all by next Thursday. BUT, the previews that aired before this dude-heavy sci-fi comedy movie were kind of like some of my wildest dreams coming true. Every movie previewed had a female lead. There was not a princess, a hooker, or a mother…shit, there was a princess, but she was schooling her menfolk. The women were often kicking ass and taking names. And, doing despicable, unattractive things.  The theaters are going to be populated, come April and May, with actual three-dimensional womens. (Possibly, if one is to believe the promises of one set of movie trailers).  I think  we can look theaterward and see,  rare but real, a constellation of sloppy janes, women heroes, and a supreme passing of the Bechdel test.  An optimistic outlook for sure, but I am so used to cursing the movie industry as I sit in a theater, that I was caught a bit off guard to see every movie presented have a woman allowed as many dimensions as the men. I doubt this moment will last. It might be a like a comet. But, also, proof that Hollywood can actually do this thing that it has insisted on ignoring since like, forever.

First up was Hanna:

We have Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchette, Focus Features, antler rifle practice, female friendship, and a dad not knowing how to prepare his daughter for the battles she’s got to face.  I love assassin movies that get to the marrow (my favorite movie, possibly ever is La Femme Nikita), and am hoping Hanna does it. It reminds me of Run Lola Run. Here’s hoping.

Next, Bridesmaids:

The first time I saw the trailer, I thought, compared to everything on British television, this is all too little too late. I was worried that this movie might boil down to what men think women do that is funny. And it might be. I have a feeling it had a thousand rewrites, even though it kept Wiig’s fine name on it. And that may be what needs to happen to get anything out of this stature and oomph, because this thing is getting the full Apatow big movie treatment.  It’s the big honcha–getting the chance that the likes of Spring Breakdown never had. We might have a eyeful of the awkward woman, showing us how expansive and devastating (the good way) comedy can be when we let women in. Or, it might be The Hangover sent to the cleaners, and back with a box of tampons and some lesbian jokes. My aim is that this movie pushes things forward.  That’s all I ask, Apatow.  Keep the Wiig gold.

Then, Your Highness:

Yes, it’s about two brothers, but it is NaPo herself that lends the effort a sense of…establishment? Yes, the trailer includes a shot of her stripping down to a leather thong, but it also shows her legitimately being a better “quester” then her male cohort.  The movie is banking on inverting the prince charming trope, and playing with all of its accessories. This, and dick and pot jokes.  But, she gets to make a lot of them, and is never rescued, but does indeed rescue.

Next up: Bad Teacher

Or what I like to call, Sloppy Jane extraordinaire. She doesn’t like kids, she wants things that are bad for her, unapologetically. I am excited about this because here we have an unattractive female protagonist (at least morally, if not physically), where the joke is that she is an asshole. I can’t think of the last morally unattractive female lead along the lines of Tracy Flick in a long time.  Diaz might be able to do here what was attempted in The Sweetest Thing, and hope this will reward for her long suffering in The Green Hornet. I am also trying to forget that Justin Timberlake has anything to do with this.

And last, Arthur.

My fingers are crossed that while this movie wants to be Russell Brand heavy, the women will sweep the show. Replacing key male roles from the original with female leads (Mirren as the new Gielgud), and surrounding Brand with a nanny, a fiance, a mother, and manic pixie (maybe authenticized, because, after all, they chose Greta Gerwig and not Minka Kelly), along with the fact that Brand can’t really carry a movie on his own (Get Him to the Greek) but fabulously supports others (Sarah Marshall), I think we might have a good recipe for a good time. Or, this will be about women telling men what to do. It’s a gamble, especially since they have removed all the alcoholism from the original 1981 script. Why can’t we have fun drunks anymore? Can you imagine The Thin Man without all  the codependent drinking?

So, in all, we have an action movie, Apatow with ladies, a stoner comedy castle quest, a rom-com that offers nothing sweet, and a remake updated and upfemmed.   This spring might be a heavy moment. Or, this might be a skewed representation, pulled from the inadequate sample of one set of previews that were shown before a movie that relied heavily on jokes about an alien’s balls.

Fingers warily crossed,

CF

 

 

 

Our Men: The Powers/CK Continuum

We write a lot here about men in movies, and the imbalance of their female counterparts. The Sloppy Joe is really just the Normal Joe. Meanwhile, the Sloppy Jane is a sore sight for sore eyes that aren’t used to looking into the sun. (Also, I have to make a loud, brusque, and phlegmy cough of ahem! to David Denby’s lukewarm observation in a review of Hall Pass that “women, however, may be insulted in other ways: onscreen, they are rarely the ones who get to act up. They’re usually solid and sane–good, loyal, colorless, hardworking girlfriends and wives.”…May be, Denby? May be?).

But, let’s look at the Sloppy Joes out there that are certainly part of the posse (both the Hollywood gender vacuum, and the posse of me, you and anybody else that would come to our party), and not part of the problem. I want to assert here that Louis CK, in his role as Louis CK on the show Louie, and the bombastic Mr. Kenny Powers of Eastbound and Down offer a spectrum of modern masculinity, its shapes, its foibles, its merits and demerits.  I think they are the Sloppy Joe of our dreams, or at least, the men that Apatow’s boys are supposed to be.

The fucked up protagonist, fully launched into our collective sub-conscious with David Brent in 2001, has become such a staple and mandate that television execs are suggesting it is as passe’ and lucrative as vampires (at least this is what I overheard at my local coffeeshop where we all talk loudly about doing important things).  Depressed may well be out, because CK has cornered that market so well on his FX show.  As long as he keeps producing, I’m okay if he is the only supplier of sad man out there for awhile. This is because what he does is startling. I would offer that CK is the male Munro…just as Alice Munro catalogs how women’s lives are not made of miracles, CK would very much like to take all the gloss off, and show that plain living is made of shit and life. Under the initial layer of middle age and divorce chronicles, the show takes on what it is to be a man and the wobbles of masculinity (and not in the “should I be a dad or not” angst).  He isn’t portraying rites of growth or understanding. He shows the ambiguous part of having balls. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it, except in key Sloppy Jane roles (again, the glorious Munro, Poppy in Happy Go Lucky, Sylvia Plath…). Our regularly scheduled schlumps (Life According to Jim, any Seth Rogen role, well, all any man starring in a movie where he is not wearing a beautifully tailored suit), don’t do this kind of work.  They exist in their messes (messes that any actress would be lucky to get a chance at), but their saccharine revelations are more of a kind of fable porn, where all struggle reveals sweet lessons and profoundity: angsty confused men grow up to be good men, and thus the hard part is over. CK is already grown up. He sits in his mess, and carries on.

And then we have Kenny Powers, who can mostly be summed up as a major dick.  He is a worst fear of American masculinity (the majorest dick): arrogant, racist, misogynist, uncouth, drunk, raging, scared, self-serving, and blind to all others but himself. He belches, he slaps asses, he brags about women ovulating all over his jetski handlebars. He betrays those closest to him constantly. And, he’s a sports hero. For all the fun of his rants and horrible behavior (the writers are smart here to win from the foulness of his character, and calling dibs on knowing he is an asshole), Powers is working in the same waters as CK: how to be a dude, and how restraining and nebulous expected gender roles can be.

Powers is so sunk by his own macho self-narrative that he constantly causes himself pain. As much as he swaggers in the first season, you just as often see a scared man who doesn’t know how to admit failure, or a scared man who cannot live up to his own mouth.  He only knows how to relate to the world through the demonstrations of alpha status: wealth, ladies, and domination. But the real world he returns to after he burns out in baseball make a mockery of these tools. They are small attempts, or gilded impostors (a leased truck, absolute rule over 7th graders, a disregard for insurance law). He always looks like a chump. The show delights in the myth of Kenny, the fun of his badassery, and it is delightful. But ultimately, creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill are taking on the failures of a rigid and mythic masculinity.

I also give the writers a high commendation for their allegiance to the jet-ski, which becomes a running metaphor for the grandiosity of Powers’ self-narrative. And the scope is large.  Jeffrey Sconce, in a post tiled “Burdened White Men”, also comparing CK and Powers,  noted that

If Eastbound and Downwere simply about beating up on Kenny Powers, who remains oddly sympathetic despite burning through life as a testosterone tornado that emotionally destroys everyone in his path, the series would get old quick.  Luckily, the show is smart enough to link the fate of the mulleted, super-awesome, and sociopathic Kenny to a parallel crisis in America’s collapsing confidence and identity.

Kenny Powers does seem to be a worst nightmare of America, as well as of a son, neighbor, or loverman. And yet, I still really like him, and want him to win. Like David Brent, I really don’t want to see him humiliated. His fucked up heart isn’t exactly his fault…he just needs more self-esteem (wait, I thought that was girl’s problem?).

Sconce also commends the challenging work these shows are doing, even if they are another set of odes to the white man’s lament of living well in the western world. As far as Sloppy Joes go, these two just might take your breath away.  Both rip open expectations of masculine identity and poke around at what’s underneath: the lovely and the icky bits that are suffocating together.

And, because I live off of Netflix, I am late to both of these parties. Louie is available on Netflix Instant, while season one of Eastbound & Down is on DVD. Both shows will have a new season this fall.

Sloppy Jane

Dear Millicent,

Because the Nu woman is such a hard label to talk around (I say it out loud and it seems to mean nothing), I am renaming her the Sloppy Jane. No, the Sloppy Jane is not a new sexual position, but it is still for the advanced.  The Sloppy Jane is that rare female protagonist who is as flummoxed, average, and compelling as men are portrayed, and who usually has a messy life that is full of unguarded or foibled moments of humanity.

And, as we have talked about before, the Brits are really good at writing Sloppy Janes, and the Americans aren’t. I would even argue that the Brits are so good at it that they have created an overdose of the Sloppy Jane.  Julia Davis’ Nighty Night was recommended to me by commenters here, and I crown Davis The Uber Jane. She is one of the most, perhaps the most, uncomfortable and unlikeable women I have ever seen take on television. She finds a panty liner in shrimp salad that she is serving to guests at dinner, and simply picks it out before serving more.  Her dog poops on her kitchen floor, and she blames the turds on her wheelchair bound nemesis. She is as over the top as a classic Sloppy Joe, David Brent for example, but she is much much harder to excuse.

In 2004, The Guardian, in an article title “The Witches” wondered if Davis had changed sitcoms forever:

It wasn’t until Absolutely Fabulous unleashed upon the world Edina and Patsy – especially Patsy – that we really had a proper introduction to women behaving badly.

Yet no one is a patch on Jill. In evolutionary terms, she is a huge leap forward, a feat of genetic engineering. The Office might have popularised the comedy of embarrassment, but Nighty Night has moved it on. The monstrous woman has arrived. Best be nice to her.

Also of interest, several female comedians are asked their take on Davis’ character “Jill”, and several reference the impossibility of an unlikeable protagonist until Gervais’ The Office. The article is a fun read, especially for Catherine Tate’s take on unattractive characters in comedy:

Apart from Friends, comedy is rarely glamorous. You’ve got to compromise your dignity in some way for it to work and what’s nice about grotesque characters is that they display a lack of vanity. I think women now are not frightened to appear unattractive, as unpleasant characters. Characters work best when they’re a mixture of recognition and exaggeration and the funnier you can look within the realms of naturalism, the better. It’s through the mouths of these grotesques that you can get away with things you couldn’t otherwise. I do a character of an old woman who says things that, on a script in black and white, would be unacceptable. That these characters don’t believe they’re wrong is what makes it funny while taking the edge off the offence.

But that article was in 2004. Nighty Night went off the air in 2005 (though Darren Star is/was producing a US version). What monstrous Sloppy Janes are still out there, especially on this side of the pond?

Here’s my working list, with high hopes to add more. They range from empathetic three-dimensionality, to intense grotesqueries of heart and spirit.

  1. Toni Collette, United States of Tara
  2. Alexandra Goodworth, Head Case (a Netflix wonder)
  3. Lisa Kudrow, in most roles she takes
  4. Felicia Day, The Guild
  5. Jennifer Anniston, Management (and I could be argued out of this one)

Who else do we need to crown Ms. Sloppy Jane USA?

Yours,

CF

She had me at ungraceful exposure of honest thought, Part 1

Dear Millicent,

The attacks against and defense of Tina Fey in the past week have made for an interesting keyhole to peek in on the state of women’s humor in our fine media.  Fey has been called out on being too attractive, judging other women, and saying whore all the time.  My biggest problem with her grand work on 30 Rock is that Jack always saves the day for Liz Lemon when she gets in a pickle.

But what I love love love about Fey isn’t her insistence she is ugly, as much as the depiction of society’s insistence that she is ugly–that she lives in a world where the aptly captured pretty bubble exists for the likes of John Hamm and Cerie (the braless socialite receptionist).  Jack also lives in this bubble, though his is also padded by extreme wealth, and the joke is that the world does suck for the not infinitely blessed.   We can’t hate on Fey for being good looking.  That isn’t what she is doing here.  As our parents told us all through high school, we  are all very attractive, and as we learned in high school, that does jackshit for your self esteem when you are swimming with beautiful sharks every day who don’t have the same trials of plainitude as the masses.  How can anyone fully announce their prettiness, when they are obviously not within the pretty bubble? I think Rebecca Traister nailed it in her defense of Fey when she said “Occasionally suffocating self-awareness is the hallmark of Fey’s style. She’s not pretending to be anybody’s ideal, least of all her own.”

But what this really got me thinking about is how my favorite TV creation, and one that is rarely stumbled on, is the messy woman that is neither adorable or nunnish.  This might be considered the omega female, but it doesn’t have to be.  Instead of full out loser, she is simply as uncensored as the menfolk.  She is allowed the ambiguities and inanity of being a real human.

She may be attractive or unattractive, but what makes her interesting is that the camera doesn’t cut away when things get unladylike.    Also, I should add that I’m not suggesting that fictional characters have to be painfully set in realism, as much as that male characters (especially in comedy) are allowed all kinds of disgraces and the depth they offer, where women usually don’t.

For lack of a more creative term, I’m calling these dames the Nu woman, as Nu is  stuck in the middle (like most of us) of that Greek alphabet which has become our powerseat rating system.  (Let me know if you think of a better name, the other choice I had was the Mu, or the MuNu?).  The Nu women have a little sprinkle of both Alpha and Omega in their landscape, and they are a very rare breed.  I get so spooked (happily) when I see one on my TV that I usually lean forward, and my pulse quickens. “They went there!” I think, or “A woman definitely wrote that.” or “Oh, I do get that.”  I watch with glee and worry at what they are exposing about the darker corners of my adult charade.

Faux Nu women are rampant, and perhaps we owe them a trailblazing award, but I’m not feeling generous.  They are usually identified by their escapades with the nitty gritty of grooming or birth control (I’m thinking of Bridget Jones cursing as she waxes herself, or Rachel Griffiths in the very good Me Myself I watching as her diaphragm zings across the bathroom). I’m also thinking of all the sitcom tries at this…Rachel, Monica, Phoebe…Caroline in the City…even the ladies of my beloved Girlfriends.

Elaine Bennis leans heavily toward the Nu woman, especially with her lack of sentimentality (who can forget her questioning of “sponge worthiness”), and it was her prickly self-absorption that made her a character first in that ensemble cast, instead of a woman that was only there to prod the boys along in their understanding of themselves.  We also have Maude.  Yes.  Maude was definitely a Nu.

Also, as I have mentioned before, I think the 70s were kinder to Nu woman development. We have Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, leaving her body during sex, and all the ambiguity that her character symbolizes about relationships and their unarticulated endings. And, Ellen Burstyn  in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, who treats her child with a less than standard ideal of care.  They often have moments where expected sentimentality is strikingly lacking (a woman untender and unhysterical towards her lover, a mother disliking her child or her station), and it ultimately isn’t because they are lacking, as much as resisting any pat formula that is ready to fall on them and wrap them in the expected veil.

And that is why I love the women on TV who exist as creatures of the same universe as the men.  Sarah Haskins embarked on this well with her “Women and Advertising” series, always contrasting the image of a woman (tamed, perfumed, in love with housework) to the earthy existence that wasn’t a Cathy version of pathetic ladyhood as much as the fact that girls live very much as men: they drink beer, they poop, they wake up looking less than pert.  Are their differences? Yes, but the brass facts exist that a real woman is a sloppier less attractive thing than what is usually presented, and a more interesting thing as well.

And, as we’ll discuss in Part II, the Brits are so much better at this than we are.

Yours,

CF